The Advent of Myself as Other: Photography, Memory and Identity Creation
Anxiety about the dangers of new technology traditionally coincides with the advance of the man-made. In particular, recent academic study has expressed anxiety around the relationship of photographic technology to organic memory. Scholars warn that photography interrupts authentic, natural memory and overwrites it with artificial narratives fabricated second-hand. This article closely analyzes four photographers from the past half-century to support an argument that, contrary to recent anxieties, photography does not destroy personal memory but instead enables moments of self-encounter that allow for constructive identity-creation. “The Advent of Myself as Other” deconstructs a view of technology in opposition to the natural. Instead, this article conceptualizes photographic technology as an extension of the organic physical body, a connection predicated on photography’s instrumental role in building self-narrative and identity.
Technologization of the aesthetic—it certainly sounds bad, it resonates with decay and the downfall of the soul. But what if, even as the soulful falls victim to the technical, the technical becomes ensouled?” Thomas Mann – “The World is Beautiful” (1928)
In recent decades, as technology—unsurprisingly—continues to infiltrate and influence modern experience, scholars have expressed anxiety over the replacement of authentic memory based on actual lived experience by a secondary memory based on recorded images. This concern implies that photographic technology ultimately perpetuates the inauthentic and represents a removal and distancing from the real. However, this simplistic assertion breaks down upon application to photographs of one’s self. The photographic portrait does not overwrite an original memory of one’s self, but instead facilitates transformative acts of self-construction, which occur both during an individual’s encounter with the camera apparatus and during his or her relationship with a printed photographic artifact. These acts contribute to a subjective self-identity and are therefore productive rather than destructive to an individual’s authentic memory.
Photography and Memory:
In his book Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes positions photography squarely in opposition to memory. He writes that, “not only is the Photograph never, in essence, a memory… but it actually blocks memory, quickly becomes a counter-memory” (Barthes 91). Barthes is certainly not alone in his lament of the ways in which photographs replace actual lived experience in the memory of the viewer. Susan Sontag also argues that “the iconic properties of the more durable photograph will inevitably replace the myriad details of the experience represented in the image; in the end it is the photograph itself that is remembered (Rogers).” Sixteen years after Camera Lucida’s posthumous publication, in a 2007 book of essays in response to Roland Barthes, Nancy M. Shawcross writes, “the photograph (even a series of photographs) is not a narrative (although an image may prompt speculation) and—phenomenologically speaking—does not belong to the realm of memory” (Rabate 65). The notion that images are incompatible with memory persists today, perhaps fueled by photographers such as Cindy Sherman and Nikki S. Lee, whose artistic arguments expose the absurdity of photography’s oft-achieved status as indexical record of reality.
The concept of the photographic assault on memory becomes all the more complex when related to images of ones self. In this case of self-encounter mediated by photography, the physical persistence of the photographic image challenges ones own temporal self-interpretation and narrative contextualization. Self-encounter mediated by the photographic process therefore impacts self-perception and individual concepts of identity as both build and collect over time. In the book After Images: Photography, Archeology, and Psychoanalysis and the Tradition of Bildung, Eric Downing addresses precisely this phenomenon of photographic identity disruption. Within the context of narrative storytelling, Downing writes:
“One of the most disconcerting consequences of the destructive effect of photographs on memory… is the always open possibility that the photograph that is mistaken for a genuine memory, and on whose basis a given character proceeds analeptically to construct his identity, to trace his development, as it were—which is to say, the Bild on which he bases his Bildung—that this photograph might not actually belong to his past at all, rendering the identity derived or developed (or simply pictured) from it false and baseless from the ground up (Downing 302).”
Although the commentary above warns against the displacement of authentic remembrance with the photographic image, it would seem that in our current visual landscape that memory is unavoidably both mediated through and facilitated by a personal relationship to photography. At the beginning of the 21st Century, classifying a self-identity created and informed by one’s relationship to photographs as “false and baseless” limits the possibilities of the photograph. Instead, the experience of photographic self-encounter should be embraced as an opportunity for transformative self-performance and identity creation.
Photography and The Performative “Imitation of Self”
In the early 20th Century, philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty reasoned that as physical beings, individuals are fundamentally objects of sight in the world. “While I look at things, I am looked at. My activity then is equally a passivity.” (Batchen 72) In spite of the dichotomy of viewer and viewed that Merleau-Ponty presents, when it comes to the experience of the photograph the process of being “looked at” can also become an action. In Camera Lucida, Barthes describes the process of being looked at through the photographic lens as an active process in the following way: “In front of the lens, I am at the same time: the one I think I am, the one I want others to think I am, the one the photographer thinks I am and the one he makes use of to exhibit his art. In other words, a strange action: I do not stop imitating myself” (Barthes 13). In this “imitation of self,” the photographic experience becomes a performative and transformative process. Barthes also notes, “once I feel myself observed by the lens, everything changes: I constitute myself in the process of ‘posing,’ I instantaneously make another body for myself, I transform myself in advance into an image.” (Barthes 10)
Not only does Barthes acknowledge the experience of self-transformation that occurs when one is aware of being captured in the image form, he also relates the experience to a horrible type of death. He says that he suffers from “a sensation of inauthenticity, sometimes of imposter (comparable to certain nightmares),” and that when posing for a photograph he is “neither subject nor object but a subject who feels he is becoming an object.” (Barthes 13-14) This experience of becoming specter, he writes, is “a micro-version of death” as it disrupts his true self for the time period in which he spends posing (Barthes 14). Although the horror that Barthes describes may be somewhat extreme, what he is describing, in essence, is the self-encounter that occurs when one is positioned in front of the lens of a camera in anticipation of being photographed.
When the camera confronts an individual who is fully aware that they are being photographed, the encounter with self that occurs results in a sort of performance. Although Barthes discusses this experience with particular disdain and horror, noting inauthenticity in the results, I believe there is a certain power in this self-performance. Within theories of the photograph, and indeed within Barthes’ Camera Lucida itself, there is some contention as to whether the posed or the candid photograph presents an image with less theatricality and more authenticity. This debate finds particular expression in the work of two specific photographers, Diane Arbus and Rineke Djikstra.
Self-Encounter in the Posed Photograph: Portraits By Diane Arbus and Rineke Dijkstra
In this section, I will explore the instant one faces a camera with the knowledge of being photographed as a momentary performance of self. This experience occupies a liminal space that is neither self nor presentation of self, but the experience of self-encounter. In this instance, the gaze is no longer considered a facilitator of one’s own agency. Rather, it is an outside force that motivates an individual to confront themselves, which is ultimately the experience that is preserved in photographic form. Upon viewing a posed photograph therefore, we are not viewing an identity, nor are we viewing one’s idea of self-identity. Instead, the viewer witnesses the moment of performed self-encounter.
Diane Arbus and Rineke Dijkstra interact with their subjects in a similar way: they both interrupt people simply in the process of living their daily lives with a request that they engage the camera for a moment; with a request that they pose. Arbus and Dijkstra’s subjects are not smiling, and despite attempts to position themselves as naturally as possible, the photos feel decidedly unnatural. The subjects seem self-conscious. This sense of self-consciousness captured in the work of Arbus and Dijkstra provides a physical record of the odd moment of self-encounter that occurs when one physically positions one’s self for the lens of a camera.
A. Hilton Head Island, SC USA, June 24, 1992, Rineke Dijkstra, 1992
B. Hilton Head Island, S. C., USA, June 24, 1992 Rineke Dijkstra, 1992
C. Kolobrzeg, Poland, 1992 Rineke Dijkstra, 1992
Arbus and Dijkstra’s consistent approach to subject also flattens the photographs and equalizes the individuals photographed in a way that both reduces them to their common denominators and emphasizes their differences. For example, Dijkstra’s series of adolescents on the beach are all composed in a similar manner with the entirety of the subject’s body in view and are set in a similar environment, with the background divided into three behind the subject; a separation of land, sea and sky. The subjects are not smiling; they are not asked to perform to the camera in any way. It is as if the goal of the photograph is simple unattached observation.
This approach to the photograph stands in contrast to the candid photographic approach of such artists as Henri Cartier-Bresson or Robert Frank. Instead of interrupting lived experience to take a photograph, Cartier-Bresson and Frank approach street photography more traditionally, with a focus on representation of scenes as they occur candidly. Comparing these two photographic techniques often leads to a question of authenticity across the styles. Which is a more realistic representation: the photograph that catches “life unawares” or the photograph whose style implies the role of the photographer and camera in its creation? It may seem that the candid photographic approach would be accepted as more authentic because the events represented appear not to be manipulated by the photographer in any way. However, candid photography is often actually considered more theatrical than posed photography. Candid photography claims to produce representations of real life, however these representations are ultimately limited by the abilities and perspective of photographer and camera. Posed photography, however, transparently reveals the influence of the camera in the representations of reality it creates. Therefore, some see this approach as a truer, more authentic representation of reality.
A. Two ladies at the automat, N.Y.C. Diane Arbus 1966
B. Puerto Rican woman with beauty mark, Diane Arbus 1965
C. Teenage couple on Hudson Street, N.Y.C. Diane Arbus 1963
For example, in Camera Lucida, Barthes describes the photograph of an unknowing subject as “performance” on the part of the photographer. He asserts that the candid photographer’s “alibi” for this performance is to “shock” by “revealing what was so well hidden that the actor himself was unaware or unconscious of it.” (Barthes 32) From his perspective, the theatricality of the candid photo exists through the performance of the photographer as he or she attempts to obtain an image without knowledge or awareness. In contrast, what Barthes considers to be the more powerful image is the one, like those created by Arbus and Dijkstra, that involve the subjects’ looks at the spectator “straight in the eye.” (Barthes 111) For Barthes, the power of “the Look,” that is to say that the emotional impact from the gaze of the specter comes from what the photographed individual “retains” within him or herself, what he or she is thinking and not revealing to the camera. Barthes refers to “the Look” of the frontal, acknowledging subject as “the effect of truth.” (Barthes 113) The honesty of Arbus and Djikstra’s photography is achieved by incorporating the pose into their process.
Although Barthes preferred the acknowledged photographic experience, he also believed that the “punctum,” that which impacted or “pricked” him as a spectator on a visceral and emotional level, could only be captured outside of the intention of the photographer. It seems then, that the posed photograph facilitates a self-encounter within the subject photographed, which opens him or her up to the camera in such a way that the punctum can emerge from the individual’s psyche itself. After all, the photographer of a posed photograph controls many circumstances, but the subject’s psychological experience of self and the physical manifestation of this experience on the face and the body are one of the few elements outside of the photographer’s control. Therefore, by asking their subjects to engage with the camera, Arbus and Djikstra actively motivate and enable the experience of self-encounter for their subjects, the authentic nuances of which they subsequently capture on film. Their work as a whole then becomes a visual study of the process of self-encounter as it occurs across their multiple subjects.
Arbus describes this self-encounter as “the gap between intention and effect,” between the way that people think the present themselves and what they cannot help but show as well (Fried 207). In these photographs, it is precisely because we are shown a performative act of creation that exists at the moment of the photographic pose (artificial in the sense that what is seen is set up to a large degree by the choice of the photographer) that we are able to see the experience of self-encounter at all. Although the pose may be what Barthes would consider an almost alienating experience of self-as-other that exists within a parenthesis apart from the full experience of one’s own life, that is not to say that there is no truth of character to be glimpsed by posed images. The record of self-encounter that Arbus and Dijkstra achieve is an authentic representation of the photographic process as it illuminates the process of subject-becoming- specter in a genuine way.
Photography and Self-Encounter Over Time
Psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan conceptualized “the gaze” in relation to the “mirror stage,” or the human developmental moment when self-recognition inspires the beginnings of individual agency. Lacan noted, “I see only from one point, but in my existence I am looked at from all sides.” (Batchen 72) What does this mean, then, for the experience of a photograph of one’s self, where the opportunity presents itself to look upon one’s own being from “all sides,” albeit within the confines of the individual photograph?
To address this question, it is necessary to discuss the experience of self-presentation and self-perception over time, as mediated by the photograph. Roland Barthes noted in his 1964 essay “Rhetoric of the Image” that photography introduces a “new time-space category: spatial immediacy and temporal anteriority.” (Batchen 7-8) Two photographers, Nan Goldin and Jo Spence, make use of the photographic realm of time-space to exert their own agency through self-representation. These photographers build upon Lacan’s ideas of “the gaze” as that which creates agency by using the mirror of the camera to develop agency not through observation, but instead through performance based in self-presentation and reflection on images of one’s self. In addition, their performances establish ownership of self-image and identity over time. In these ways, Goldin and Spence demonstrate how the photographic image informs identity creation over time.
Self-Encounter and Photographic Temporality: Self-Portraiture By Nan Goldin & Jo Spence
As Barthes notes, the photograph creates spatial immediacy and temporal anteriority, which results in a “new time-space category.” (Batchen 7-8) This category of time-space allows for self-encounter and mythical self-creation motivated by the appearance of one’s self over time. Nan Goldin’s photography consistently blurs the boundary between public and private and her career and body of work traces her self-encounter in both arenas. Although Goldin exhibits her work at museums and galleries, the traditional institutions of public exhibition for the art world, the images also resemble a personal photograph collection as they were all taken in the context of her real life. Her photographs depict individuals from her private life and over the course of her career, certain characters appear again and again, often referred to by first name in the title of the photograph. In this way, Goldin’s explores the narrative quality of photographic myth. By tracing specific individuals over time, Goldin’s work represents the temporal nature of photography and the ways in which the photograph can chronicle change.
A series of photographs that Goldin took in the late 1980’s, while she was in rehabilitation for her drug addiction, illustrate this link between photography, identity and self-creation. “I started to photograph myself and my own face in order to find out what I looked like without drugs and to fit back into my own skin,” Goldin said of the photographs (Nan Goldin / Interview 1 of 2, 5:00). These photographs thus became part of a dialogue that Goldin had with herself to trace her narrative trajectory over time.
Not only did the photographs inform Goldin’s self-concept in retrospect, but these photographs also represent a theatricality of the authentic that ultimately inform and build on the real. Goldin’s decision to photograph herself while in rehab was therefore an active performance of self. She was not taking the photos solely to obtain record of herself, but her actions were also a performative act of self-creation in the moment aimed at helping her “fit back into [her] own skin.”
This example also relates to Jean Baudrillard’s postmodern concept of the “hyper-real.” What Goldin presents in these photographs are not depictions of the reality that another individual in rehabilitation with her would have observed, but they are instead a representation of a reality that has been shaped by self-authorship. Who is to say that Goldin is not presenting her “authentic” self? The awareness of the photographic process informs Goldin’s performance of herself and her presentation to the camera becomes an act of creation, an act of self-expression. Goldin has incorporated the apparatus of the camera and the photographic experience into this expression.
Self-Portrait by Nan Goldin 1989
Interview with Nan Goldin (new window), please cue up to 5:00
Jo Spence also employs a process of self-presentation and chronicle of self over time. As an artist, Spence was concerned with the tendency of photography to omit the more disturbing and troubling parts of reality. Much of her work challenges the authenticity or accuracy of photographic archives of real lived experience. For example, in an exhibit titled Beyond the Family Album, Spence presented a series of personal photographs from her childhood alongside text that challenged the memories that these photographs suggested and inserted elements that had been excluded. In the mid-80s, Spence did a series of photographs of herself before undergoing a mastectomy necessitated by the presence of cancer. One such photograph is taken from a frontal perspective, with herself presented in a hospital gown immediately prior to the surgery. She appears with an “X” marked onto the skin of her chest, indicating the breast to be removed during surgery. Another shows the upper half of her body post-surgery with a small card noting the date, permanently situating the image at a specific historical moment.
These arresting photographs deal specifically with the temporality of the photographic image. In her photographs, Spence preserves a moment in time after which her body was changed forever. These images not only archive the moment of trauma in a way that challenges what photography remembers, but they also create a moment of death and loss into an always ever-present. The preservation of a type of death, which is to say a moment of fundamental corporeal transition, creates not only an eternal life out of that image, but a perpetual death as well. The experience of loss is ultimately what is preserved. In Spence’s case, the decision to preserve this moment of loss and death becomes a commentary on our own relationship to that loss. It makes the experience of loss unavoidable, inescapable. For her, it incorporates that moment of loss into the fundamental and overarching creation of her identity through a continual interplay between past, present and future.
Self-Portrait by Jo Spence 1984
Dated Self-Portrait by Jo Spence 1984
Just as photography collapses the historical moment into the present physical space, it simultaneously situates events in the past. A photographic image always represents a reality situated in the past and the viewer is always situated in relation to it historically.
Eric Downing writes that, “photography introduced, or participated in, a radically accelerated pace at which things became outmoded, in which the durative value of images, truths and identities increasingly gave way to a sense of the ephemeral, of serial replacement.” (Downing, 12-13) While photography contributes to the cycle of serial replacement, it can also preserve the past and something that no longer exists through a process that Barthes describes as a sort of “resurrection.” (Barthes, 82) Jolanta Wawrzycka notes in her essay “Mythologizing in Camera Lucida” that through these ideas Barthes’ “could be viewed as participating in the economies of death and rebirth or, more poignantly, in rebellion against the inescapability of ‘flat death.’” (Batchen 96-97) So photography maintains an intricate, contradictory relationship with time. Photography at once situates events in the past and contributes to the ephemeral experience of existence as we cycle through images on a continual basis. It also resurrects the anterior and imbeds it in the present, adding to a continuity of existence through the self-referential mode of experience, which it encourages. These contradictions are evident as a creative force of self-creation in the images of Jo Spence.
The temporal nature of photography allows for a dialogue with self over time, which slowly builds concepts of self. The images of one’s past self become symbols, which then subsequently inform and become part of a personal narrative. The accumulation of images of one’s self over time also relates to a sort of self-voyeurism, one that investigates representations of self as clues or evidence of coherent subjectivity. The photograph enables a process of investigation of self as other (that other “me” that exists there in the past) motivated by a desire for self-understanding and coherence. This process of looking at one’s self with the intention of gaining insight is actually a process of performance by which identity is created and not discovered.
Conclusion: Toward a Comfort with the Madness of the Photographic Self-Encounter
Barthes writes in Camera Lucida,
“…the Photograph is the advent of myself as other: a cunning dissociation of consciousness from identity. Even odder: it was before Photography that men had the most to say about the vision of the double. Heautoscopy was compared with an hallucinosis; for centuries this was a great mythic theme. But today it is if we have repressed the profound madness of Photography: it reminds us of its mythic heritage only by that faint uneasiness which seizes me when I look at “myself” on a piece of paper.” (Barthes 13)
True to his apprehensive nature, Barthes relates the photographic self-encounter to an unnatural madness that he saw society generally ignoring in the later part of the 20th Century. This view positions a real lived experience of one’s self in opposition to a false mediation of self through photographs. This pejorative view of the photographic self-experience (which also verges on nostalgic) limits possibilities for the photographic construction of identity. It is also incongruous to the actual practice of photography, as it has progressed over the past half-century. Instead of anxiously creeping forward with reservation about the identity-photograph relationship as Barthes did on a textual level, visual expression embraces the transformative qualities of the medium. Both a comfort with the photographic self-encounter as an expansion of the experience of self, and a creative use of photography’s “madness” as a tool transformative self-creation have emerged in the last couple of decades, as evidenced by the work of the contemporary photographers in this essay.<./p>
Indeed, if the photograph acts as “a sort of umbilical cord link[ing] the body of the thing photographed to my gaze,” then the act of viewing one’s self is an experience of self-nourishment (Barthes 81). The experience then is not a hallucinatory encounter with a false other, but rather, the incorporation of photographic time and space disruptions builds into a larger self, one that incorporates (or “ensouls”) technology as a fundamental actor who contributes to individual self-creation. Consciousness then does not become dissociated with identity as Barthes asserts. Instead photography complicates and expands the ways in which consciousness can creatively build identity.
Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York: Hill and Wang, 1982. Print.
Batchen, Geoffrey, ed. Photography Degree Zero: Reflections on Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida. Cambridge, MA: The MIT, 2009. Print.
Downing, Eric. After Images: Photography, Archaeology, and Psychoanalysis and the Tradition of Bildung (Kritik German Literary Theory and Cultural Studies). New York: Wayne State UP, 2006. Print.
Fried, Michael. Why photography matters as art as never before. New Haven: Yale UP, 2008. Print.
“Nan Goldin / Interview 1 of 2.” YouTube. 18 Nov. 2008. Web. 21 Dec. 2009. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wQ9-aSRvdf0 (new window).
Rabate, Jean-Michel, ed. Writing the Image After Roland Barthes. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania, 1997. Print.
Rogers, Molly. “Memory and photography: Information from Answers.com.” Answers.com: Q&A combined with free online dictionary, thesaurus, and encyclopedias. Photography Encyclopedia. Web. 21 Dec. 2009. http://www.answers.com/topic/memory-and-photography (new window).